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The Buzzy New Technology That Could Make Pills Obsolete

Jun 28, 2017

Pills have been popped for aches, pains, and other medical problems for at least a few millennia. But are their days as the holy grail of drug delivery (and discovery) coming to an end?

It’s hard to imagine the $450 billion pharmaceutical industry—which makes almost half of its sales on pills, according to QuintlesIMS—abandoning the simple medical tablet altogether, but increasingly it has competition.

Especially formidable is the new class of pharmaceutical implants, matchstick-size devices that deliver drugs to patients over a period of weeks or months, are coming into their own. Titan Pharmaceuticals and Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, for example, have an FDA-approved implantable that, once inserted in the patient’s upper arm, treats opioid addiction by providing continuous doses of buprenorphine. Braeburn is developing a similar implant for schizophrenia, while Titan is working on one for Parkinson's, among other diseases. The biotech Intarcia, meanwhile, has a diabetes-treating implant under FDA review.

This under-the-skin technology may make some squeamish, but it solves the big problem with pills—namely, that you have to remember to take them. And because of aging and the rise of chronic diseases, Americans have more pills to remember to take; 15% are on a regimen of more than five medicines per day, according to a 2015 JAMA study. The price of forgetting is considerable; aside from the poorer health outcomes, “nonadherence”—a problem for 25-50% of patients, depending on the condition—results in an estimated $100-300 billion each year in avoidable healthcare costs.

If such devices take off, experts say they could prevent that waste, not to mention, save chronic sufferers who miss their meds the pain.

A version of this article appears in the July 1, 2017 issue of Fortune.

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